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Keywords:

  • Spatial language;
  • Containment;
  • Motion;
  • Space;
  • Overextension;
  • Language and cognition;
  • Language acquisition;
  • Cross-linguistic analyses

Abstract

Children's overextensions of spatial language are often taken to reveal spatial biases. However, it is unclear whether extension patterns should be attributed to children's overly general spatial concepts or to a narrower notion of conceptual similarity allowing metaphor-like extensions. We describe a previously unnoticed extension of spatial expressions and use a novel method to determine its origins. English- and Greek-speaking 4- and 5-year-olds used containment expressions (e.g., English into, Greek mesa) for events where an object moved into another object but extended such expressions to events where the object moved behind or under another object. The pattern emerged in adult speakers of both languages and also in speakers of 10 additional languages. We conclude that learners do not have an overly general concept of Containment. Nevertheless, children (and adults) perceive similarities across Containment and other types of spatial scenes, even when these similarities are obscured by the conventional forms of the language.